Can NFL Least teams make the most out of non-division games Sunday?

By Barry Wilner, AP
Friday, October 8, 2010

Can NFL Least turn it around?

Things could start getting sorted out in the NFC Least, uh, East, this Sunday as all four teams in the league’s most disappointing group play non-divisional games.

Sure, it’s only four weeks into the schedule, but it’s stunning that this usually powerful division has been so mediocre. The Cowboys are the biggest flop so far at 1-2, a half-game behind the Redskins, Giants and Eagles.

Washington has the early edge thanks to wins over Philadelphia and Dallas. The Giants haven’t even played a divisional game, and they won’t until Oct. 25.

Outside of the NFC East, New York has a win over weak Carolina and a 10-sack demolition of Chicago, but looked awful in losses to Indianapolis and Tennessee. Those same Bears romped at Dallas, and the Packers handled the Eagles in Philly. The Redskins blew a big lead against Houston and also fell to St. Louis — which might not be so embarrassing now that the Rams are tied atop the NFC West, which also is a train wreck.

Dallas hosts Tennessee on Sunday, while Washington is home for Green Bay, Philadelphia is at San Francisco, and the Giants are at Houston.

“It’s a little bit of a fresh start,” tight end Jason Witten said of coming off a Week 4 bye. “That doesn’t neglect what we’ve done in the past. I think we have to look at that with a critical eye, and we did. I think this team is moving forward.”

The Cowboys don’t have to move too far forward to grab the division lead.

“Ultimately, it’s what we do from now on,” coach Wade Phillips said. “We’ve won one in a row. We’re going for two, that’s where we’re going.”

Elsewhere Sunday, it’s Kansas City at Indianapolis, New Orleans at Arizona, St. Louis at Detroit, San Diego at Oakland, Chicago at Carolina, Denver at Baltimore, Atlanta at Cleveland, Tampa Bay at Cincinnati, and Jacksonville at Buffalo.

Monday night has a spicy matchup, with Minnesota at the New York Jets.

Off this week are Miami (2-2), New England (3-1), Seattle (2-2) and Pittsburgh (3-1).

Tennessee (2-2) at Dallas (1-2)

While the Cowboys look to build off their first strong effort in a victory over the Texans two weeks ago, the Titans need to find running room for Chris Johnson. His pursuit of an unprecedented second 2,000-yard rushing season is off to a slow start with an average of less than 100 yards a game and a 3.8-yard average per carry.

“Us 11 guys, we’re not going to let this guy get out of the gate and off to the races, to beat us on one play,” Cowboys linebacker Keith Brooking said.

Green Bay (3-1) at Washington (2-2)

The high-pitched emotions of Donovan McNabb’s return to Philadelphia are behind the Redskins, who played well enough to win that game even though McNabb’s performance was middling. Washington must rely on untested RB Ryan Morain with Clinton Portis gone for at least a month with a groin injury, so McNabb needs to upgrade his play.

But the Green Bay rushing defense ranks only 24th, and the Packers also have issues running the ball. That means more reliance on Aaron Rodgers’ arm.

New York Giants (2-2) at Houston (3-1)

Angry about their showings against the Colts and Titans, the Giants took it out with 10 sacks versus the Bears. They’re likely to need such a fierce pass rush against a Houston offense that has 108 points, more than any other in the NFC and fourth in the league.

The Texans have found a nice balance with Arian Foster running the ball, and he could see extra duty if star receiver Andre Johnson is slowed by a sprained right ankle. Houston gets back last year’s top defensive rookie, linebacker Brian Cushing, who was suspended for the first four weeks for violating the performance enhancing drug policy.

Philadelphia (2-2) at San Francisco (0-4)

Kevin Kolb didn’t look all that prepared when he had to replace injured Michael Vick (ribs, chest) against the Redskins. Considering the ample weapons the Eagles have on offense — DeSean Jackson, Jeremy Maclin, Brent Celek, LeSean McCoy, who also has rib problems — Kolb needs to get up to speed against a San Francisco team in disarray.

The 49ers were a fashionable pick in the NFC West. When you commit as many mistakes as Mike Singletary’s team is making, emphasized by Nate Clements’ fumble on an interception return against Atlanta that should have clinched a victory, the prospect of any win fades.

Kansas City (3-0) at Indianapolis (2-2)

It’s barely surprising there’s an undefeated team in this matchup. It’s shocking that the Chiefs are spotless, the league’s only club without a loss. Kansas City’s doing it with a strong running game led by Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, and a vastly improved run defense.

Beating the Colts would stamp the Chiefs as legitimate, even if Indy is battered on both sides of the ball, particularly in the secondary. Peyton Manning is off to one of the best starts of his illustrious career with 11 TD passes and one interception, and leads the league in passer rating. But the Colts are a .500 team even though they have the top three receivers in the conference.

“But we’re going to need all the tips we can get to conquer this one,” Chiefs LB Derrick Johnson said. “Peyton’s the best quarterback in the league.”

New Orleans (3-1) at Arizona (2-2)

Two underachieving teams that, nonetheless, lead their divisions.

The Super Bowl champion Saints have outscored opponents only 79-72 and have yet to have any breakout games offensively like the ones that carried them to their first NFL title. They’re a hobbled squad, especially in both backfields after long-term injuries to RB Reggie Bush and CB Tracy Porter.

Still, the Saints look like world-beaters compared to the Cardinals, who somehow are 2-2 despite being outscored by 60 points. How badly does Arizona miss the retired Kurt Warner? The Cardinals will go with undrafted rookie Max Hall on Sunday, their third No. 1 quarterback this year if you count the preseason.

St. Louis (2-2) at Detroit (0-4)

Missouri football has peaked, with the aforementioned Chiefs at 3-0, the Rams having won two straight to double their win total from last year, and even the University of Missouri Tigers unbeaten and ranked 24th in the nation.

St. Louis is getting excellent work from top overall draft pick Sam Bradford, despite a pedestrian group of receivers. The Lions struggle in all defensive categories, but they also throw the ball pretty well, whether it’s Matt Stafford or Shaun Hill at quarterback.

San Diego (2-2) at Oakland (1-3)

The Chargers could tie the longest active winning string against one team with a 14th consecutive victory over the Raiders. San Diego won its two home games handily, lost two close ones on the road. The Chargers often begin the season on a roller coaster, then surge. Other than the 2-2 record, the numbers look great: top-ranked overall on offense and defense. But that’s measured in yards, which can be misleading.

Other than a blowout loss in their opener at Tennessee, the Raiders have done well, a Sebastian Janikowski missed field goal short of being a .500 team.

Minnesota (1-2) at New York Jets (3-1), Monday night

If Darrelle Revis is over his hamstring injury, he can return for yet another matchup with Randy Moss. The Vikings acquired the big-play receiver from New England, where Moss was unhappy and didn’t catch a pass last week against Miami. Brett Favre plays a former employer, although it’s hardly as juicy as when he plays the Packers.

The Jets swept three games against division rivals and can truly back up their boastful ways by beating Minnesota. They also could get back LB Calvin Pace and definitely will have WR Santonio Holmes for the first time; he was suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy.

Chicago (3-1) at Carolina (0-4)

Chicago’s QBs should be very glad that Julius Peppers now is on his side. As the Bears head to Peppers’ former home, they must shore up their blocking unit, which allowed those 10 sacks against the Giants and left Jay Cutler with a concussion that will sideline him Sunday. Journeyman Todd Collins will start.

Peppers has been dynamic since joining Chicago, even though he has just two sacks. He’s created opportunities for other Bears, particularly the linebackers. They all should get lots of chances against woeful Carolina, which has yielded 12 sacks, has rookie Jimmy Clausen at quarterback, and can’t get its once productive running game on track.

Denver (2-2) at Baltimore (3-1)

The Broncos made an impressive comeback at Tennessee and now get an even tougher road test. Kyle Orton has been brilliant at times as the league’s busiest passer, and he’ll need to keep his arm warm against the Ravens, the NFL’s stingiest team against the pass. Don’t expect much from Denver’s running game, statistically the worst of the 32 teams.

A last-minute rally at Pittsburgh lifted the Ravens into a tie with the Steelers atop the AFC North. This is their first of three home games in the next four matches.

Atlanta (3-1) at Cleveland (1-3)

The Falcons were fortunate to escape against San Francisco, and the Browns finally won a game after leading in the fourth quarter every week. Cleveland now embarks on as rugged a stretch as anyone will see this season, facing Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, New England and the Jets.

Atlanta’s two-pronged rushing attack of Michael Turner and Jason Snelling has impressed. So has Roddy White, who leads the NFC with 32 receptions and made that great strip of Clements to save the Falcons a week ago.

Tampa Bay (2-1) at Cincinnati (2-2)

Terrell Owens had his first big game for the Bengals and they still lost last week to the Browns. Cincinnati must be careful against a young and improved Tampa Bay squad whose pass defense is its best unit.

Jacksonville (2-2) at Buffalo (0-4)

Hard to believe the Bills could be favored against anyone, particularly a team that comes off a stirring upset of Indianapolis on Josh Scobee’s 59-yard field goal. But Buffalo opened as a 1-point choice despite having as many problems as any NFL team.

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